Piano and The Brain

By Faith Burton

Does Piano really affect your brain? This is a question that has come up a few times in my many years of playing piano. This topic has me curious, does piano in specific affect the brain differently than playing other instruments? If so, what areas of the brain are the most affected?

Piano playing is different than any other instrument, both hands can play up to ten notes at a time. This requires extensive muscle memory and hour beyond hours of practice. When I started playing piano about six years ago, my fingers would cramp and ache after two minutes of playing, only allowing them to stretch far enough for me to put my fingers on the notes in front of me (about five keys). I played about two and a half hours everyday for years on end, and now close to fifty- thousand hours of piano playing later, I am able to play beyond octaves (an octave is eight keys), I can play with my eyes closed, I can play every key and most tempos. Yes, physical practice does amount to muscle memory and why my fingers can go to the exact spot they need without looking, but it also takes brain power. My brain must take the information and store it somewhere.

When I first started playing piano, my left hand worked against my right. It was a daily struggle of “making” both hands work together while I played piano. Playing guitar, for example does not require the same kind of ambidexterity as piano. In the article, “How Playing Piano Affects the Brain,” the writer Mark discussed the topic of hand dominance, the brain and how they work together. “Most of everyone is born with a dominant hand, this is chosen by the sulcus (part of the brain). In most, the sulcus is deeper on one side, which correlates to the dominant hand. Scientists have done a study, and it shows that people who play piano have a more symmetrical central sulcus.”

I have always been right-handed up until about four years ago when my family and I noticed I was using my left hand to hold my fork while eating. It was weird that all of a sudden using my left hand was easy, and the thought of playing piano never crossed my mind as the reason for it. I have since began using my left hand for other mundane daily tasks that for most would prove challenging when using their non-dominant hand. “Pianists brains, after years of playing, have learned to ignore one hand as the more dominant and they develop into ambidextrous beings,” said Mark.

    Another large part of piano playing is muscle memory. Muscle memory itself is not the muscles having memory, it’s a training of the brain to create a pattern and form memory in the muscle. Most know that if you repeat a pattern over and over you will build a muscle memory. This is the same thing as playing piano. If the same chord progressions are played repeatedly a muscle memory will begin to form and you will soon find playing them will become non-conscious effort. So what is muscle memory? “It is a stored memorized posture or movement pattern that can be released from the basal ganglia of the brain. And the more we practice these movement patterns, the more entrenched these neural patterns become.” said Joe Muscolino, a licensed soft-tissue oriented chiropractic physician.

Piano playing is an art different than any other kind, requiring significant portions of the brain to build up, and work together in order to play. Not only does piano sound beautiful, but it is a workout for your mind. Sherrie, a freelance writer and artist said “Where you once had a stronger influence from the creative side of the brain, you now have a balance of both creative and technical aspects of your reasoning. This is another reason why playing piano is completely different than any other musical talent.”